Research Article: Routes of Recruitment

This research article is published in the Journal of Aggression, Maltreatment and Trauma, 2007, 15 (2), 1-19.


Routes of Recruitment: Pimps’ Techniques and Other Circumstances that Lead to Street Prostitution


Kennedy, M. Alexis, Klein, Carolin, Bristowe, Jessica T. K., Cooper, Barry S., & Yuille, John C.


Don’t take much to turn a no into a maybe.

Not with all the charm and cunning I possess.

Don’t take much to turn a no into a maybe.

And, it don’t take long until maybe turns to yes.

Wave your magic wand. Weave your magic spell.

Promise her a piece of heaven. And, she’ll follow you to hell.

“Don’t take much” (Coleman, 1996, track 7)


The saying “the world’s oldest profession” portrays prostitution as just another career choice. However, entering the sex trade may not be a voluntary, premeditated career choice, particularly with respect to street prostitution. Rather, it may be a last resort option. While there is a growing body of research investigating life on the streets for prostituted women (Brannigan & Gibbs Van Brunschot, 1997; Farley, Baral, Kiremire, & Sezgin, 1998; Farley & Barkan, 1998; Yargic, Sevim, Arabul, & Ozden, 2000), no research to date has described the recruitment process into street prostitution. This exploratory study presents information on some of the pathways to street prostitution. Both pimp recruitment techniques and social influences that leave prostituted women feeling that they have few alternatives to working on the streets are described.

Previous research has suggested that there is no single causal pathway into prostitution (Bullough & Bullough, 1996). Women of every education level and family background are involved in the sex trade in Western Canada (personal communication, Detective Constable O. Ramos, Vancouver Police Department VICE squad, August 2006). These women often share the feeling that they had no choice but to become involved in prostitution. Unfortunately, once involved, many feel that it is difficult to leave prostitution (Nixon, Tutty, Downe, Gorkoff & Ursel, 2002). A study conducted by Farley and Barkan (1998) showed that 88% percent of the prostituted women they surveyed wanted to leave the sex trade.

The realities of life on the street include physical and sexual violence, substance abuse, risk for disease, exhausting working hours, poverty, degradation, and marginalization by society (Bagley & Young, 1987; Benoit & Millar, 2001; Cooper, Kennedy, & Yuille, 2002; Dalla, 2000, 2001; Erikson, Butters, McGillicuddy, & Hallgren, 2000; Farley et al., 1998; Farley & Barkan, 1998; Nixon et al., 2002; Silbert & Pines, 1983a; Weiner, 1996). In a study of prostituted women in five different countries, Farley and colleagues found that 62% of respondents had been raped since entering prostitution. The majority of respondents reported current health problems as well as a current substance abuse problem. In another study, Farley and Barkan found that 68% of prostituted women met full criteria for Post-traumatic Stress Disorder according to DSM-III-R criteria. The realities of life on the street also often affect more than just the prostituted women; Weiner found that over two-thirds of prostituted women had at least one child.

Research has revealed that many women (ranging from 40% to 80%) working in street prostitution are involved with pimps at some point (Barry, 1995; Norton-Hawk, 2004; Silbert & Pines, 1983b; Williamson & Cluse-Tolar, 2002). However, this research has not focused on the techniques used by pimps to procure these women. The only research investigating why women enter prostitution has involved looking at drug addiction and abuse as factors. Studies of crack-addicted women have found that a number of these women started in prostitution to pay for their drug habits (Erickson et al., 2000). Silbert and Pine’s (1982) groundbreaking work showed that 27% of the prostituted women that they interviewed started prostituting to pay for drugs. Research has linked a history of child abuse with entering prostitution (El-Bassel, Witte, Wada, Gilbert, & Wallace, 2001; Widom & Kuhns, 1996). While clearly not all women who experience abuse enter prostitution, research shows that the vast majority of women in prostitution appear to have suffered sexual abuse as children (Dalla, 2000; Farley & Barken, 1998; Silbert & Pines, 1983a) or as adults prior to entering the sex trade (Campbell, Ahrens, Sefl, & Clark, 2003; Cooper, Kennedy, & Yuille, 2001). Psychological research has demonstrated a correlation between abuse and drug use with entrance into prostitution (McClanahan, McClelland, Abram, & Teplin, 1999). This research, however, does not ask the women to describe the decision-making process that led to them working on the streets. This paper presents information on what circumstances or which peers encouraged women to prostitute themselves.

An understanding of not only why but also of how women become involved in prostitution is important both for trying to help these women exit the trade and for preventing more women from being recruited into the trade or seeing the trade as a last option. This paper is unique in that it explores the role of pimps in the recruitment of women into street prostitution. Women, particularly adolescent women, appear to be enticed by pimps into a life on the streets through five powerful forces: love, debt, addiction, physical might, and authority. While some pimps may favor one type of recruitment technique over another, they may use multiple and different recruitment techniques with different women. In addition, non-pimped introductions to street prostitution are discussed.


Information in this paper came from two sources. The first source was interviews with formerly prostituted women, parents of prostituted women, VICE officers, outreach workers, health nurses, and other social service providers. These ‘informants’ were primarily contacted through and interviewed at the Prostitution Offender Program of British Columbia (for further information see Kennedy, Klein, Gorzalka, and Yuille, 2004). The interviews were conducted by the first three authors. Twenty-two informants were interviewed and asked questions regarding their personal knowledge about how children and women began working in prostitution. The informants included 10 formerly prostituted women, 5 VICE police officers, 4 social service providers, and 3 parents of prostituted women. The informants’ qualitative information is presented anecdotally.

The second source of information was responses provided by 44 women involved in the sex trade who were interviewed at a Vancouver safe house for prostituted women. The primary purpose of these research interviews was to explore the variables associated with psychological responses to trauma (e.g., dissociation, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder symptoms, eyewitness memory); these results are reported elsewhere (Cooper, Kennedy, Hervé, & Yuille, 2002; Cooper, Kennedy, & Yuille, 2001, 2004; Cooper, Yuille, & Kennedy, 2002). Women were contacted through the safe house and offered $25 for their participation. Interviews were conducted by female researchers who had been trained in and used the semi-structured Adult “Step-Wise” Assault Interview protocol (Yuille, 1990). Women were asked the open-ended question “Who turned you out or how did you begin working on the streets?” Twelve participants were not included in the analysis because a response to this question was not elicited due to incomplete interviews or their response was not transcribed due to inaudible cassette tapes. Thus, the final sample for this paper was 32 women.

The average age of the women interviewed at the prostitute safe house was 34.5 years (SD = 7), with a range from 19 to 45 years old. The average age reported for beginning work in prostitution was 21.3 years (SD = 9), with a range from 10 to 45 years old. Forty-one percent of the women reported starting on the streets under the age of 18. Fifty-three percent of the women reported their ethnicity to be of First Nations descent, 31% reported European descent, and 16% reported being of mixed ethnic heritage.

This paper is primarily qualitative research with the goal of informing the reader about the human experience in the phenomenon of street prostitution. The use of more than one type of informant (women involved in prostitution as well as numerous individuals familiar with street prostitution) increases the credibility of the qualitative data collected (Fade, 2003; Mays & Pope 2000). To minimize researcher bias through interpretation in presenting the results (Mays & Pope), the qualitative analysis is followed by a quantitative summary of the responses provided by the women interviewed at the safe house. The data from the informants was not analyzed quantitatively, but rather presented anecdotally as examples of the different introductions to prostitution that were uncovered.

Results and Discussion

The frequencies of the responses provided to the open-ended question are presented in Table 1. These responses, as well as information provided by key informants interviewed through the Prostitution Offender Program, were categorized into two major areas: pimp recruitment techniques and non-pimped pathways into prostitution.

Table 1

Life with Pimps: An Element of Terror

Black’s (1990) law dictionary simply defines a pimp as someone who obtains customers for a prostitute. The reality of most pimps, however, is that they use manipulation, threats, and violence to keep prostitutes from leaving the trade and live entirely off the women they recruit into prostitution. Research has consistently revealed that pimps are often perpetrators of violence against prostituted women (Benoit & Millar, 2001; Nixon et al., 2002; Sanders, 2001; Silbert & Pines, 1981, 1983b; Williamson & Cluse-Tolar, 2002). Not surprisingly, many pimps are psychopathic (Greaves, Spidel, Kendrick, Cooper, & Hervé, 2004) and psychopathy is strongly associated with all types of violence (Hare, 2003). Anecdotal information provided by informants described violence perpetrated by pimps for such reasons as not meeting their quota, being suspected of talking to police, trying to exit the trade, or just “getting out of line.” It was reported that many pimps beat “their” women regularly, often without any precipitating factors, to show them who is in control and to keep them so scared that they do not think of attempting to exit the trade.

The beatings that women described were unique to pimping and the sex trade. One form involves beating the women with a “pimp stick,” which is a coat hanger that has been unraveled and doubled over; occasionally the pimp stick is heated on a stove to increase the degree of pain. One formerly prostituted woman interviewed reported being unable to look at wire coat hangers and having to stock her house only with plastic hangers, even years after exiting the industry.

Despite reports that the majority of pimps used violence to keep the women in the trade, violence was rarely reported as being used to first get the women into the trade. Instead, most pimps use one or a combination of the following five techniques: (a) love, (b) debt, (c) drugs, (d) the “gorilla” technique, and (e) position of authority.


Sixteen percent of the prostituted women interviewed described being turned out by a boyfriend or a pimp to which they had an emotional attachment. The seduction process was also described by informants from the Prostitution Offender Program. It appears that pimps were able to convince underage girls to prostitute themselves by pretending to love them. Playing on their vulnerabilities, stereotypes, and insecurities, pimps could distort a young woman’s sense of right and wrong with alarming speed. Several ways that this seduction process could occur were reported but, in most cases, a pimp would scout out a vulnerable, insecure teenager and woo her with attention and gifts. Not only would he wine and dine her, but he would make sure that she was aware of how much money he had been spending on her. Then, after the girl had fallen madly in love with her new ‘boyfriend,’ the pimp told her that they were out of money. Knowing how much money her ‘boyfriend’ had spent on her, the girl felt responsible for the situation and was willing to do anything to help. And so, with the help of her ‘boyfriend,’ the girl found herself prostituting on the corner to bring home some money.

Another common scenario reported was of young women, who, feeling very grown-up with their new older ‘boyfriend,’ agreed to sneak away for the weekend. Upon arrival in an unfamiliar city, however, the situation suddenly changed and the only way to survive the boyfriend’s financial emergency was to work a few hours on the street. The pimp or ‘boyfriend’ discouraged the young women from calling home for help by telling them that their parents would be very upset if they knew that their daughter was really away with a man when they thought that she was just staying at a girlfriend’s place in town. Once the young women realized that they were not just working the streets for a few hours, the pimps moved to more aggressive tactics, including threatening to tell parents that their daughter had slept with strangers for money. If the girls could withstand that shame and still insisted on calling home for help, the pimps then turned to threatening the girls or their families with serious harm. The combination of having their hearts broken, the shame of having been prostituted, and fear of the pimp kept young women on the streets and afraid to ask for help. The women were left emotionally shattered, ashamed, disoriented, and afraid.

However, there was another element that often kept these young women with their pimps: many women still continued to feel emotional attachments to the man who betrayed them. It could be argued that these women were demonstrating a form of traumatic bonding similar to that seen in battered women (Dutton, 1995). Dutton’s description of these dynamics in battered intimate relationships could also describe the prostituted woman’s relationship with a ‘lover’ pimp as, “the development of strong emotional ties between two persons, with one person intermittently harassing, beating, threatening, abusing, or intimidating the other” (p. 190). Prostituted women reported having trouble giving up the fantasy of a perfect life that the pimps promised them and thinking that time on the streets was only a detour before their real future together would begin. Some women would never label the man who turned them out as a pimp; to them he is the man they love and they believe that they are showing their love to him by earning money for him. These same women often justified the beatings they regularly receive from their pimps in much the same way as battered women; they reported feeling that they must have deserved the beating. Parallels exist among the reactions of prostituted women and the descriptions of battered women who have been shown to deny or emotionally numb themselves to the level of the violence that they are experiencing (Walker, 1998).

While the process of recruiting a new girl usually takes between three and six months (personal communication, Det. Constable R. Payette, Vancouver Police Department VICE squad, December 2006), some pimps needed as little as 24 hours to turn the world of an impressionable young woman upside down. According to the women and informants interviewed, pimps were often charming, intelligent, and good judges of human nature. As an example of the latter, one pimp openly shared his technique with VICE officers, describing how he always looked for a group of three girls to find his next target. Out of the three girls, he would always go for the one that was the second most attractive. His reasoning was that the most attractive girl was used to getting most of the attention and would not be wooed so easily. The least attractive girl would be suspicious and wonder why he was paying attention to her. The middle girl, on the other hand, would be flattered to be the center of his attention.

The ‘love’ form of recruitment was the technique commonly seen with women who did not have a history of abuse or who came from stable, middle or upper-middle class households (personal communication, Det. Constable R. Payette, Vancouver Police Department VICE squad, December 2006). VICE police officers reported that pimps would refer to young women from a good home as “in-for-a-million” girls. The reasoning was that healthy, good-looking young women can be worked for long hours on the higher scale strolls (e.g., Richards Street in Vancouver) where they would bring in more cash per client. Pimps bragged to police that they could make a million dollars off of a drug-free, high-end girl before she became useless, a physical and emotional ghost of her previous self. The other factor in the “in-for-a-million” play officers reported was the potential for blackmail. If young women from a good home had parents who attempted to rescue them from the street, the pimp could use personal information to blackmail and humiliate the family if the girl tried to leave and return home.

This form of pimping, in which the girl forms an emotional attachment to her pimp, is the most desirable method pimps use to recruit new girls. Not only are the girls unlikely to turn on their pimps, whom they “love,” but they are also easier to manipulate and control than women who fear their pimps, as with pimps who use violence (see the “gorilla” technique section below), and would run away if they felt that they could. One prostituted woman bluntly described her boyfriend turning her out at age 16 as follows:

I was dating someone who was 31. I had a legal job and was in school and one day he came home and he said he needed money for his daughter from his first marriage. And I told him I couldn’t do anything because I wasn’t getting paid till next Friday so he came home that night with a pair of heels and mini skirt and took me outside and told me to take what they gave me.


A second technique used by pimps to recruit new women was to give them gifts, clothing, money, or drugs, under the guise that they were being given for free. However, after a period of time, the women were told that they had accumulated a large debt. If the women were unable to pay, one or a combination of several scenarios were reported to play out. The women may have felt that they had no alternative to working on the streets as suggested by their ‘new friends.’ The pimp may have claimed that both their lives were in danger unless he repaid the money to his debtors. Pimps may have used other women that they were prostituting, or “main girls,” to befriend the women and shower them with wealth. 19% of the prostituted women interviewed reported being turned out by a female friend, but since follow-up information was not elicited on these responses, the authors do not know if these friends were working for pimps. The “main girls” then told the young women that her pimp would harm both of them unless they both worked on the streets.

This debt technique differs from the ‘love’ technique in that there is no intimate relationship between the pimp and the woman. With no easy alternative for repaying the debt and under the threat of physical harm, the women were introduced to the street as a way of earning money. Thinking that this would only be a short-term situation until the debt was paid off, the women prostituted themselves. Unfortunately, however, the debt never got paid off, no matter how much money the women brought in. Instead, the women, believing the threats of harm, stayed out on the stroll.


Addiction to drugs as a reason for entering the trade was a common theme among women who entered the trade at a young age: 16% of the prostituted women stated that they began working on the streets to support a drug habit. Young women who left home or who were kicked out for drug use described being turned out by drug dealers. Drug addicted young women, who were unable to get other jobs partly due to being underage or having no fixed address or phone number to leave potential employers, reported sleeping with drug dealers in exchange for drugs. Dealers might put young women up in their apartment for a few weeks and supply them with drugs. The dealers then informed these young women that the only way they would continue to get drugs would be if they slept with their friends. Once the young women agreed to this ‘favor’ they were asked to take it a step further and work on the streets. The shame of having slept with these men to procure drugs was reported to have broken down their resistance to the idea of working on the streets. This technique is different than the ‘debt’ technique in that women were not working to repay a debt, but rather were working for their next ‘fix.’ The women who were recruited by this method would acknowledge that they were addicts before they turned to prostitution.

The “gorilla” technique.

Termed the “gorilla pimp” in VICE circles because of their primitive-like behavior (personal communication, Det. Constable R. Payette, Vancouver Police Department VICE squad, December 2006), some pimps do not use charm or manipulative techniques. Instead, this technique relied on brute force to put new women on the street. Ranging from threats to beatings to straight-out kidnapping, a pimp using this technique never tried to deceive the young woman with promises of love or glamour. He made it clear that her job was to turn tricks on the corner and that if she did not follow through, there would be grave consequences to her and her family. While none of the women interviewed at the safe house reported beginning on the streets in this manner, this technique was described by informants. They acknowledged that it is infrequently used as it evoked little loyalty from the prostituted woman. What may be more common is for a pimp who recruited a young woman using another technique to eventually turn to ‘gorilla’ tactics.

Authority figures.

The final technique described for recruiting women into prostitution was for people to use their position as an authority figure. Most often, this technique was seen with parents or family members. Over 12% of the prostituted women interviewed reported being forced to work on the streets by their mothers, fathers, foster parent, or older sibling. One informant told of being sold by her father at the age of 10 to an American man at a truck stop (personal communication, prostituted woman, November 2001). She was returned to her father by Social Services after being sexually abused by a number of men. At age 12, her father injected her with cocaine and she was forced to prostitute herself on the streets to support their joint drug habits.

Informants and the women interviewed at the safe house indicated that women who were turned out by their mothers reported a greater variety of introductions into the trade. Some women were expected to prostitute to support their mothers’ addictions. Other women worked with their mothers in prostitution. One woman reported being turned out by her mother at the age of 10. Other women reported being discouraged from entering prostitution by their mothers but were exploited or turned out by the men they met through their mothers. Another woman described being turned out at the age of 12 by her brother: “Well, it was through the sexual abuse. My brother, I learnt that way. Because he was paying me.” These families often had numerous people involved in sexual exploitation, from uncles to brothers.

Non-pimped Pathways into Prostitution

While pimps were responsible for introducing many women into the sex trade, many other factors can also lead women to the streets. These include severe drug addiction, being in desperate financial straights, socialization and normalization of the sex trade, coming from an abusive home, and leaving another form of prostitution. These pressures are not mutually exclusive, and in fact, often occurred simultaneously.

Substance abuse.

Addiction to drugs and/or alcohol resulted in some women working in street prostitution in order to finance their habits. As discussed above, 16% of the prostituted women interviewed identified drugs as the reason that they became involved in street prostitution. Since no follow-up questions were included, the authors cannot split the drug addicted group into those who worked for pimps or drug dealers and those who did not.

In some addiction cases, prostituting was a last resort and followed, or accompanied, other forms of criminal activity such as theft, robbery, and fraud. The ability to make ‘instant cash’ and the flexibility of hours not only led many addicted women into prostitution but also kept them there. The work was always there, even if they disappeared for extended drug binges and their need for more drug money kept them returning to the streets. Reports from participants in the current study support earlier findings by Erikson and colleagues (2000).

Some women also turned to prostitution to support their partners’ drug habits. In cases where the couple had become addicted to drugs, the women reported starting to work on the streets in order to support their habits. Their partners may then have been considered to be living off of the avails of prostitution, qualifying them as pimps, but generally these women denied that their partners had any involvement with the decision to begin working on the streets. In the situation where a woman was prostituting herself to support her partner’s drug habit, the partner himself was also often involved in criminal activity.

Financial difficulties.

While financial difficulties due to addictions are a common theme, financial difficulties unrelated to drug or alcohol addictions have also driven some women into the commercial sex industry. Over 12% of the prostituted women interviewed identified economic necessity (unrelated to addiction) as the primary reason that they began working on the streets. Bagley and Young (1987) reported that 80% of the women they interviewed felt that financial needs or other problems left them no alternative to entering prostitution. Miller and Schwartz (1995) reported that prostituted women who began as young runaways turned to prostitution as they felt that they had no other potential source of income. Women who began working on the streets for economic necessity often turned to drugs in order to numb themselves from the reality of prostitution. Once addicted to drugs, it added another level of financial difficulties, leaving them feeling trapped (Erikson et al., 2000).

Two women interviewed at the safe house reported beginning in street prostitution to support their children. For example, one woman stated, “welfare wouldn’t help me…and the ex…didn’t want anything to do with me because he found out that I was pregnant.” Another woman stated that her husband did not know that she began working on the streets to help pay for food after the birth of her second child.

In some cases, entry into street prostitution began with women accepting financial assistance from men in exchange for sexual services. For example, one woman interviewed at the safe house, who started working at age 19, reported being stranded in a strange city after a fight with her boyfriend and stated: “I just was at a restaurant having coffee and, um, a rich man made me a very generous offer. Asked me if I was all right, if there was anything I needed help with. I explained that I had no means of getting home, and he bought me a ticket home and gave me money as well in return for sex which took about four minutes.” Being turned out by a stranger was different than the pimping techniques described because the man did not stay involved or benefit from her earnings.


Informants reported that the more entrenched young women became in the life surrounding prostitution, the more likely they were to become prostitutes themselves. The glamour of ‘easy’ money and a care-free lifestyle initially obscured the harsh realities of life on the streets. Some young women reported being impressed by the fact that prostitutes seemed to have cash in hand and could easily afford to take cabs everywhere that they went. The fact that they were only taking cabs to and from work went unnoticed.

Many times the road to prostitution began with a friendship. A young girl, who was experiencing the angst of being a teenager, met another young girl who seemed to be living a life of freedom. The new friend had money, nice clothes, took cabs everywhere, and was free from the tyranny of her parents. The young girl eventually became aware of where her new friend got the money from, and it seemed so easy. From there it was just a short time before the girl turned to the street herself, chasing visions of freedom and wealth. This route to the streets had young women deciding on their own to begin working on the streets alongside their friends, in contrast to those women who acknowledged that they were recruited by women, or ‘main girls’ who worked for pimps. As mentioned above, 19% of the women reported being turned out by female friends; however, because no follow-up questions were asked the authors could not split these friends into those working for pimps and those who were not. Previous researchers reported that half of the 14 women they interviewed entered prostitution because they were drawn by the “thrill and adventures of the life” (Potterat, Phillips, Rothenberg, & Darrow, 1995, p. 333).

A number of young women reported entering the trade after working as babysitters for prostitutes. These young women were hanging out downtown and accepted work as live-in sitters. After a short while, these young women were well versed in the world of prostitution. They had normalized this lifestyle, and it became relatively easy for them to be lured to the street. Normalization also occurred for daughters of prostitutes. Unfortunately, this normalization was also often accompanied by stigmatization of the family and by the belief that prostitution was the only work available.

Past history of abuse.

Previous research has indicated that high levels of sexual abuse are often suffered before entering street prostitution (e.g., Bagley & Young, 1987; Nadon, Koverola, & Schludermann, 1998; Silbert & Pines, 1983a; Potterat, Rothenberg, Muth, Darrow, & Phillips-Plummer, 1998). Over 96% of the women interviewed at the safe house in Vancouver reported having been sexually assaulted prior to entering the sex trade (Cooper et al., 2002). Seventy-three percent of the women reported experiencing childhood sexual abuse as measured by the Childhood Trauma and Abuse scale (Bristowe, Kennedy, Cooper, & Yuille, 2003). Despite these high levels of abuse, only one woman interviewed linked her history of abuse with her decision to enter street prostitution: “A friend of my mine … she got out and got money and I had been approached while I was waiting. And I figured I’m getting molested at home so why not get paid for it and get my rent covered.”

Sex trade hierarchy.

Another route into street prostitution described by informants was through leaving another arena of the commercial sex industry. Some women initially sought employment with escort agencies, attracted by the perceived time flexibility and money. While escort agencies may have begun as a more empowered form of sexual exploitation, these women eventually become disenchanted with this form of prostitution. Women were expected to be on call for 24-hour shifts, which proved to be exhausting. Women often had to pay a high fee per shift to be on call without any assurance that work would be sent to them. Fees were reported to be as high as $400 per night, which had to be paid before they were put on the client call list. Often, women could not choose how many shifts they did per week and were forced to prostitute on the streets in between shifts to meet their financial needs. Women reported having to spend large amounts of money to meet the dress and personal hygiene requirements of the agencies. Rules disclosed by former employees included being required to wax all areas of their bodies and employers checking to make sure they had not shaved instead. Somewhat ironically, some women left escort agencies to work on the streets because they no longer could tolerate the forced sexual relations with the business owners.

Similar problems were associated with being prostituted through massage parlors. Dress, hair, and hygiene requirements were rigorous and expensive. One woman disclosed the lasting insecurity she felt from having to line up with the other women whenever a client entered. The women who were not chosen were often left feeling rejected and inadequate. While prostituting in a closed area like a massage parlor seems like a more secure environment, women were physically assaulted by clients and told to endure it by the parlor owners. Women were also assaulted, including being pushed down a flight of stairs, by the business owners themselves. Those who were addicted to drugs had trouble keeping their jobs at massage parlors, being fired after missing too many shifts. Finally, while some women worked concurrently in different arenas of prostitution, others experienced a downward spiral of being fired by escort agencies, blacklisted in local massage parlors, and having street exploitation left as their only option.

Free choice.

Over 18% of the women simply responded that they had freely chosen to begin working on the streets and offered no further explanation. For example, one women responded to the question “Who turned you out, or how did you begin working on the streets?” with “I turned myself out. It was just me. It was me. I’m responsible.” She reported being 10 years old when she made the decision to begin working in street prostitution. It is quite possible that there was an external influence that helped her to this decision, as many 10 year olds do not know that street prostitution exists. No follow up questions were asked at the time, but the authors feel that future research should explore in more detail the decision making process that might precede such a decision.

The diverse routes to street prostitution presented in this paper lend support to Bullough and Bullough’s (1996) argument that there is no single factor that can be considered causal to entry into prostitution. The most insidious and common pattern appeared to be women being convinced to exploit themselves for the financial benefit of someone else. Betrayals by the people closest to prostituted women appeared to be only the first injustice in a path that is rife with violence, degradation, and extreme physical stress.


Several important limitations with this paper need to be taken into account. As stated earlier, the information gathered for this paper primarily focused on street prostitution. More in-depth explorations of the quality of life and reasons for entering other areas in the industry, such as escort agencies and massage parlors, need to be undertaken. Another limitation is the fact that this was a non-random sample of prostitutes’ stories and informants. The authors have no way of knowing whether these findings are generalizable beyond the women willing to be interviewed and who were present in this geographic location. Previous research has decried the difficulty in securing a representative sample from an obscure and variable population (Potterat et al., 1998). Using informants also has limitations in that it is not a systematic exploration of the topic, the informants may not be representative of all social service agents working in this area, and they chose which stories to share. Another limitation with the information gathered from the women contacted through the safe house was that information was elicited through a simple open-ended question. Interviewers did not challenge or ask the women to expand upon responses provided. It is possible that more information could have been gathered about the decision making process for the women who stated that it was their own idea to begin working on the streets if follow-up questions had been asked. Future research should explore this process in more detail. Also the information provided here was anecdotal rather than quantitative. This paper does not offer predictions for who will enter prostitution, but rather provides examples of how women have ended up on the streets.


Some research suggests that women who have taken responsibility for the choices that led them to the streets nonetheless felt that they had few feasible alternatives (Dalla, 2000, 2001; O’Neill, 1997). The goal of this paper was to present information on the techniques or circumstances that led women into prostitution. These techniques and circumstances range from various methods pimps use to procure women, to numerous psychological and sociological facts that lead women to seeing prostitution as their only option. While the authors acknowledge that prostitution may be an informed and free career choice for some women, this was not a premise espoused by the majority of prostituted women interviewed or by the families of prostituted women and people who currently work with prostituted women.